Changes in William Shakespeare's Macbeth Throughout the Play

Changes in William Shakespeare's Macbeth Throughout the Play

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Changes in William Shakespeare's Macbeth Throughout the Play

Throughout this play we can see significant changes in the character
of Macbeth. In Act One he is described as a brave war hero, but by Act
Four he has become a brutal murderer. These changes are influenced by
his ambition and conscience, the prophecies of the Witches and
pressure to act on the prophecies from Lady Macbeth.

In Act One we are aware of Macbeth's bravery because of the way in
which the Captain speaks about him, "...his brandished steel smoked
with bloody execution." (Act i scii) Macbeth's bravery in battle shows
us that he is being loyal to his king (God's representitive on Earth).
Macbeth earned the respect of many people, including Duncan, by
fulfilling his duty to fight for king and country, "He hath honour'd
me of late, and I have brought golden opinions from all sorts of
people." (Act i sc ii)

All seems to be going well for Macbeth untill he encounters the
Witches on the way back from battle. It is there that the idea of
becoming king himself is first planted in his mind. At first he does
not think it is possible to become king himself, "...and to be King,
stands not within the prospect of belief," (Act i sc iii) and thinks
he could never bring himself to kill Duncan and take his throne,
"Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair, and make my seated heart knock
at my ribs."

The idea of becoming king becomes more real to Macbeth when he
discovers he has become the new Thane of Cawdor. Because part of the
Witches' prophecies had been fulfilled it leads him to think that it
could be possible to take the throne. "Glamis, and Thane of Cawdor:
the greatest is behind." (Act i sc iii) When Lady Macbeth hears about
this in a letter, she becomes excited about becoming queen and goes so
far as to ask evil spirits to help her in the murder. "Thy letters
have transported me beyond this ignorant present, and I feel now the

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future in the instant." (Act i sc v)

Despite his own desire to be king, Macbeth still is not certain that
he should kill Duncan. He is said to be, "...too full o' th' milk of
humane kindness," (Act i sc v) to act on the Witches' prophecies by
Lady Macbeth. This is quite a contrast to the way he was described in
Act One Scene Two when the Captain talks about his bravery in battle.
The difference here is that Macbeth is being convinced to kill his
king rather than kill his enemies. Lady Macbeth persists and
eventually persuades him to go ahead with the murder, "Away, and mock
the time with fairest show, false face must hide what the false heart
doth know."

We can see how affected Macbeth is by the event when he sees the
vision of a dagger in Act Two Scene One. His mind is playing tricks on
him because he is so afraid, "...a false creation proceeding from the
heat-oppresed brain?" He is having to choose between his loyalty to
the king and gaining a kingdom himself, but in the end his ambition
overcomes his conscience and he goes ahead with Duncan's murder,
"Whiles I threat he lives: words to the heat of deeds too cold breath

Although the vision of the dagger shows us Macbeth is under a lot of
pressure, it doesn't necessarily mean his character is changing or
that he is going slightly mad. It does mean, however, that even though
he is a bit disturbed by the thought of killing his king, he is still
able to take control of his actions.

After the murder things begin to change. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth
are very distressed and this is shown by the break in rhythm in Act
Two Scene Two:

Lady Macbeth: "Did you not speak?" Macbeth: "When? Lady Macbeth:
"Now." Macbeth: "As I descended?" Lady Macbeth: "Ay."

Shakespeare often broke up the rhythm of a characters speech to
illustrate how emotionally unstable they were. In this case Macbeth
and his wife are very nervous and guilty because they have committed
the worst crime possible, the murder of a king.

In the time 'Macbeth' was written Guy Fawkes and other conspiritors
had decided to plot against King James I and kill him by blowing up
Parliament during his speech on November 5th. As a result of this,
many plays were written that favoured plotters against the monarchy
coming to a bad end. Also, it was believed that disturbing the social
hierachy (by, for example, killing a king)everything would be thrown
into chaos.

This was something else Shakespeare picked up on so he wrote about
such chaos in Act Two Scene Four, "Thou seest the Heavens, as troubled
with man's th' clock 'tis day, and yet the dark Night
strangles the travelling lamp." In this scene the sun has been obscued
and Duncan's horses had eaten each other. Scenes describing happenings
such as these would have been totally acceptable to the Jacobean
audiences because it agreed with James I's beliefs.

After killing Duncan, Macbeth is crowned the knew king because the
original heir (Malcolm) had fled on hearing his father had been
murdered. In order to keep his throne, Macbeth has to kill many other
people such as Banquo, Fleance and Macduff's family. The other murders
are actually commited by hired murderers rather than Macbeth himself.
This could mean that he dares not kill anyone directly because of the
guilt he would bare. He had already killed the king, perhaps he wanted
to avoid going through that experience for a second time.

The point where he plots to kill Banquo is another turning point in
Macbeth's character. Banquo was his best friend that he fought
alongside in battle and yet he murders him because the Witches
prophecied that his sons would be kings. This shows us that keeping
the throne is far more important to him than keeping his best friend.
First he betrayed the king and now he has betrayed his own best
friend. His ambition at this stage is far greater than his loyalty to
even his closest companions.

However, Macbeth does not kill Banquo without his conscience coming
back to haunt him. In Act Three Scene Four Banquo's ghost appears at a
banquet and sits at the king's chair (it is significant that he is sat
in the king's chair because his sons were to be the future kings of
Scotland). Macbeth's guilt is beginning to catch up with him and shows
itself as a ghost. His mind is playing tricks on him again because he
has such a huge weight on his mind, the guilt of murdering his king
and the guilt of murdering his closest friend.

This guilt is obviously taking it's toll on Macbeth because even Lady
Macbeth is keeping some control. He comments on how, " can
behold such sights, and keep the natural ruby in your cheeks, when
mine is blanch'd with fear." Lady Macbeth deals with the situation
better than him probably because she did not have to carry out the
first murder.

Macbeth's insecurity forces him to pay another visit to the three
Witches so that they can tell him his future and give him some peace
of mind, "Though castles topple on their warder's heads...answer me to
what I ask you." (Act iv sc i) The Witches then call the Three
Apparitions to give Macbeth the advice it wants to hear so badly. The
first thing he is told is to, "Beware Macduff", the second that,
"...none of woman born shall harm Macbeth", and finally that, "Macbeth
shall never vanquish'd be, until Great Birnam Wood, to high Dunsinane
Hill shall come against him."

These words were exactly what Macbeth needed and wanted to hear, but
probably did him more harm than good. They filled him with false hope
and confidence, but still reminded him that Banquo's sons were to be
the future kings of Scotland and not his own descendants.

Nevertheless, Macbeth takes heed of the first piece of advice and sets
out to kill Macduff and his family, "The Castle of Macduff, I will
surprise...give to th' edge o' th' sword his wife, his babes." (Act iv
sc i) Macbeth is still focused on keeping his throne and is prepared
to kill a whole family if needs be. This is also another turning point
in his character, it shows us that he is willing to do anything to get
peace of mind and keep the crown and does not care what sacrifices he
makes to get there. He feels that having chosen an evil path he cannot
turn back, "I am in blood, stepped in so far that should I wade no

When he hears of his wife's death he feels his life has lost meaning
and what he desired so much had no point because he had lost the woman
he loved, "There would have been a time for such a word: to-morrow,
and to-morrow, and to-morrow."

At this point more and more things start to go wrong. Birnam Wood is
sighted marching towards Dunsinane Castle which was, as the
Apparitions said, the sign that he would be vanquished. Then, the last
of his certainties disappears when he is told Macduff was not born of
woman but by Caesarean section. This is where Macbeth's character
changes for the last time. He is, in a sense, returning to the person
he was at the beginning of the play. He refuses to surrender even when
there was no way he could win the battle. In desparation he fights
bravely with Macduff untill he meets his unfortunate end, "Yet I will
try the last. Before my body, I throw my warlike shield. Lay on
Macduff." (Act v sc vii)
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